REVIEW – ‘Tenet’ is every bit as baffling as you’re expecting

There are few directors who love to craft a good mindfuck quite like Christopher Nolan. Whether it’s the multiple timelines of Dunkirk, the interdimensional wormholes of Interstellar, or practically every frame of Memento, Nolan has always had a knack for testing an audience’s patience with cinematic confusion that consistently flirts on frustration. After numerous coronavirus-induced delays and a staggered worldwide release schedule that’s rather brutal for anyone outside of Australia, Nolan’s latest epic is finally here, and it’s every bit as baffling as you’re expecting.

After the cinema closures of the last several months, Tenet arrives with a hefty weight of responsibility on its shoulders, given the release is expected to essentially relaunch the film industry around the globe and bring people back to cinemas. Whether American audiences are willing to legitimately brave the risk of catching COVID-19 to venture out to see Tenet remains to be seen. And, disappointingly, Nolan hasn’t entirely delivered a film truly worth risking your life to see.

While Tenet is absolutely a film designed to be seen on the biggest screen possible, the experience proves to be a frustrating one, courtesy of a convoluted plot and structure so genuinely confusing, even repeat viewings may not provide any clarity. A stunning technical marvel filled with numerous spectacular setpieces, Tenet is ultimately undone by a Rubik’s Cube of a storyline that only gets more discombobulating with each turn of the wrist.

Without venturing in spoiler territory (frankly, I wouldn’t even know how to spoil this film), Tenet centres on a figure known only as “The Protagonist” (John David Washington), a C.I.A. operative recruited by the mysterious Tenet organisation to stop a conspiracy that could lead to World War III. The brewing war involves time travel and something called “inversion technology,” which I’ll leave Tenet scientist Barbara (Clémence Poésy) to explain to you in the film.

Joining forces with suave British spy Neil (Robert Pattinson), The Protagonist uncovers intel that implicates nefarious Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh, chewing every piece of scenery with an unintelligible Soviet accent) in the plans to use future technology to bring about the apocalypse. To get close to their target, The Protagonist enlists the help of Sator’s tormented, semi-estranged wife, Kat (the ever-reliable Elizabeth Debecki).

That’s genuinely all one can say with absolute certainty about the plot of Tenet. Once the key figures are all introduced and in place, Nolan spins his complicated film off in numerous tangents and timelines, making it all but impossible to cohesively follow. While it’s all entirely intentional and the plot will likely be the subject of dozens of think pieces to come for the next decade, it does prove to be a rather frustrating experience.

Several times during my screening, my brain was screaming, “I have absolutely no idea what’s happening,” which can prove rather fun at first, but simply becomes exhausting by the mid-point of this two-and-a-half-hour labyrinth of a film. Nolan’s screenplay is overstuffed with complex, exposition-heavy dialogue that is truly difficult to keep up with, confounded by mumbled performances and uber-loud sound effects work that make it nigh on impossible to hear every word. If you can find a session with Closed Captions, it would be wise to take advantage. Never before have I desperately wanted a non-English language film to feature subtitles, merely so we can follow along with what the hell is being said.

In saying that, Tenet is a film that never lags and keeps your interest throughout its extended running time. Its pacing moves at breakneck speed and rarely stops to take a breath, which subsequently just adds to the difficultly in keeping up with everything that’s occurring. If your mind wanders slightly or you stop to ponder the previous scene, you’re likely to find yourself even more lost than you were before. My only advice is to remain as steadfast with paying attention as you possibly can.

While not on the same grand scale as something like Dunkirk, Tenet is a mammoth production that showcases its gargantuan $200+ million budget at every turn. The action sequences are expectedly breathtaking, particularly a thrilling time-bending freeway car chase and the moment Nolan ploughs an actual Boeing 747 into an aircraft hanger. These scenes do feel somewhat reductive of moments from other action films, but they’re no less awesome to behold. Perhaps that’s merely the result of all of us only watching films on our TV screens for the past six months. It’s a joy to see something this immense on a big screen again.

As for the cast, it’s a mixed bag of performances where the characters never earnestly connect with each other as we saw in Nolan’s Inception. In his biggest role to date, Washington is endlessly charming and effortlessly sharp with the actor making a strong case to inherit the James Bond mantle after Daniel Craig finally walks away. Washington isn’t given much depth to his character, but it’s hardly needed in a film where the physics of the plot is really the focus. Pattinson is typically solid and Branagh seems to be having a ball playing against type with a villain straight out of a comic book, while Michael Caine drops in for a one-scene cameo where he provides some much-needed wit while eating a plate of chips.

We’ve long known Nolan has great difficulty with writing his female characters (please just hire a female script consultant), and Tenet equally suffers through its portrayal of Kat, who is little more than a one-note damsel in distress whose only purpose is to expositorily connect plot points and spend much of the film crying about her son. She has no personality, acumen, or qualities beyond merely existing in this film. She may as well be a potplant. At any given time, her character serves one of two functions; to be in perilous danger or simply be a glamourous, mute ornament within the scene. Even someone as wildly gifted as Debicki can’t save this tepid character and Nolan completely wastes her talent, which is absolutely criminal.

On a visual level, Tenet soars through evocative cinematography from Hoyte van Hoytema and luscious production design by perennial Nolan collaborator Nathan Crowley, both of which will likely be in the mix for consideration come awards season. Ludwig Goransson‘s score is unsurprisingly loud and bombastic, but it feels like a generic mash-up of scores you’ve heard a dozen times before. Sequences featuring time inversion visual effects are wildly impressive, particularly those that involve both forward and backwards physics at the same time.

When all is said and done, Tenet is a terrifically impressive film, albeit one damaged by its labyrinthine plot and thinly drawn characters. It’s easy to be dazzled by its visual feats, but it’s hard to truly enjoy a film that leaves its audience feeling entirely befuddled and exhausted by everything they’ve just experienced. There’s nothing like a great cinematic mystery, but Nolan seems foolishly intent on refusing to invite anyone in to solve it. Perhaps repeat viewings will provide audiences with more inspiration to unfurl the riddle that is Tenet. But after your first time witnessing this film, you’ll likely just want to take a much-needed nap.

Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Martin Donovan, Fiona Dourif, Yuri Kolokolnikov, Himesh Patel, Clemence Poesy, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh
Director: Christopher Nolan
Producers: Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan
Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema
Production Design: Nathan Crowley
Costume Design: Jeffrey Kurland
Music: Ludwig Goransson

Editing: Jennifer Lame
Running Time: 150 minutes
Release Date: 27th August 2020 (Australia)